Stay Sharp by Decoding Cryptograms
Cryptograms are more complicated than word searches and word scrambles, and they’ll almost certainly require more of your time. But solving a cryptogram is really satisfying — it makes you feel like a master detective — so the extra time is well worth it.
A cryptogram is a sentence or phrase that’s encrypted or enciphered. Each letter has been substituted with a different letter like a code. (In some cases, nonletter characters — such as numbers — are used as substitutions as well, but this book uses only letters.) So within the sentence or phrase, for example, every A may be replaced with an N and every S replaced with a P. In order to figure out what the sentence or phrase says, you have to figure out each substitution — not an easy task!
Even with the following strategies in mind, sometimes solving a cryptogram is tough. Your best bet is often just to make guesses and see what sticks. But the tips offered here should at least help you refine your guesses.
- Use a pencil. Because you’re bound to be making guesses at least some of the time, you want the ability to erase and guess again if you discover you’ve made a mistake. And keep scrap paper close by.
- Know that no letter substitutes as itself in a cryptogram. The puzzle constructor won’t try to trick you by using an A to represent an A, for example.
- Remember that only one solution is possible for a cryptogram. Part of the puzzle constructor’s job is to make sure the sentence or phrase is long enough that the solution must be unique. In other words, you can’t come up with two or more logical solutions to the same puzzle.
- If a hint is provided, look at it first. This book may offer hints that indicate, for example, how often a certain letter appears or where you may find a certain letter (at the start or end of a word).
Other puzzle constructors may give you a different type of hint. For example, a hint may be a phrase that’s only partly encrypted, such as MICKEY PRTIN. When you figure out that PRTIN represents MOUSE, you then look for instances within the encrypted sentence or phrase where you can substitute M for P, O for R, and so on.
In other cases, the puzzle constructor may show you a few letters in the solution itself.
- Look for one-letter words (if the puzzle has any), which have to be either I or A. You could find an instance of a single-letter word being O, but that’s pretty rare.
- Two- and three-letter words should be your next targets. Consider common two-letter words such as an, as, at, by, in, is, it, no, of, on, or, so, and to. Frequently used three-letter words are and, but, for, the, and you.
- If you see an apostrophe in the encrypted text, you can guess that what follows it is an S or T. D is also possible, but contractions such as he’d, I’d, they’d, and we’d aren’t that common. If you see more than one instance of an apostrophe, and the letters before and after each apostrophe are the same, you can guess that you’re looking at an N before each apostrophe and a T after it. (Think can’t, don’t, and won’t.) If you don’t see that repetition before and after multiple apostrophes, you’re likely looking at possessives (ending in S).
- Double letters are also good places to focus. For example, say you see RR in an encrypted word. You may not immediately know whether you’re looking at an LL, an EE, an SS, or some other double-letter combination, but you can guess that R doesn’t substitute for letters that aren’t commonly doubled (such as A, I, H, Q, and U).
You can also consider how frequently each letter appears in the cryptogram. You can assume that if you see a letter only once, for example, it’s probably not an E, a T, an A, an O, or an N.
But going much deeper with frequency analysis (considering how often certain letters typically appear in the English language and comparing that with how often the encrypted letters appear) is pretty complex stuff and may suck the fun out of solving the puzzle. Hopefully, the tips in the bulleted list can help you solve a handful of letters, which in turn help you make educated guesses about a few of the words, which give you solutions to more encrypted letters and help you break the code.
If you get stuck, make some guesses based on what you’ve figured out so far. And walk away if you need to — it’s better to come back to the puzzle with fresh eyes later than to get frustrated!